There’s one scene from George Orwell’s 1984 that’s always stuck with me. Well, two scenes if you count the idea of someone putting my head in a cage of hungry rats. But since writing any more on that one will result in nightmares; I’ll stick to the scene describing the main character’s job. As Orwell wrote,
“Winston’s greatest pleasure was his work. Most of it was a tedious routine, but included in it there were also jobs so difficult and intricate that you could lose yourself in them as in the depths of a mathematical problem-delicate pieces of forgery in which you had nothing to guide you except your knowledge of the principles of Ingsoc and your estimate of what the Party wanted you to say.”
Winston Smith, the protagonist, despises Big Brother and Ingsoc (English Socialism). The government is responsible for countless disappearances, including that of his parents. He actively fantasizes about bringing down the entire system.
And yet, he considers his work to be his greatest pleasure. Work in which he revises historical records and maintains the Party’s propaganda machine. A machine — to Winston’s mind at least — that’s critical to sustaining the Party’s power and authority.
He knows this. He knows that his work is making the world a worse place. And he still takes pleasure in it. Even writing this now, I struggle with that concept. It would be similar to having lifelong vegan find purpose in managing a slaughterhouse. Or someone with morals offering to support Matt Gaetz’s re-election campaign.
What would drive someone to find meaning in a job that clearly doesn’t deserve it?
We All Need Meaning Somewhere
“Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal,” wrote Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. “Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners.” In recounting the horrors of the Nazi death camps, one of Frankl’s key findings is that if someone lacked a purpose, they couldn’t summon the strength to survive.